Flamengo – Cruzeiro: Clash Between Similar Tactics Decided By Bruno Henrique (3-1)

Thanks to striker Bruno Henrique and better overall buildup play, Clube de Regatas do Flamengo were able to overcome Cruzeiro Esporte Clube. A tale of new boys finding their way and old soldiers that never die.

Tactical analysis and match report by Erik Elias.

In Brazil, a country almost as large as the whole European continent, the first few months of the year are reserved for state championships. These are taken very seriously; seven of the twenty clubs that participate in this season’s Serie A have sacked their manager during the state championships.

After a few months of warming up locally, the whole nation turns their eyes to the country’s top division: Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A. Both Flamengo and Cruzeiro managed to win their state championship, meaning they came into the first match of the domestic league in good spirits. 

Flamengo finished as runners-up last season. In Brazil, that means you are losing some players to Europe. Most notably, Flamengo said goodbye to Vinícius Júnior and Lucas Paquetá, both of whom left for big money to Real Madrid and AC Milan, respectively.

Their 4-2-3-1 formation featured four ‘new’ players: Rodrigo Caio at center-back, Bruno Henrique as the striker, former wonder kid Gabigol as the right winger, and Giorgian De Arrascaeta at the number ten position. The latter was bought from…Cruzeiro, for thirteen million euros. His transfer poignantly marks the financial disparity between these two clubs. Flamengo’s double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. , is also worth noting, as it consists of a balanced duo of the flashy Willian Arão and the combative Gustavo Cuéllar.

The 4-2-3-1 seems to be the formation that will be fielded the most in Brazil’s Serie A this season; Cruzeiro used it as well. Veteran goalkeeper Fábio was defended by the not very mobile center-back pairing Dedé and Cerqueira, while Edilson and Dodô acted as the fullbacks. Henrique and Romero acted as the double pivot, while the line of three offensive midfielders – Gabriel, Rodriguinho and Pedro Rocha – all fit the bill of what you would expect from an attacking midfielder in Brazil.

Cruzeiro’s striker is Fred, former forward of Lyon and the Brazilian national team. At 35 years of age, Fred is currently lighting things up, with impressive performances in Cruzeiro’s Campeonato Mineiro win as well as in their Copa Libertadores matches.

Flamengo wins the possession battle

Because Flamengo pressed a bit higher up the pitch and have more press-resistant midfielders and attackers than Cruzeiro in general, they had more possession in the first half. Thus, the main theme of the first half was Flamengo trying to attack in their not-so-fluid 4-2-3-1 formation, as Cruzeiro defended in a 4-4-2 shape, with Rodriguinho dropping back in midfield to help out.

Flamengo’s 4-2-3-1 formation versus Cruzeiro’s 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 shape.

There was not a lot of movement in Flamengo’s attacking play. Their most remarkable offensive nuance was that Gabigol – once an out-and-out striker – was given extreme freedom on the right wing. He came very deep and asked for the ball in central midfield, but he did not do anything to surprise Cruzeiro’s defense. Most of his touches were too far away to contribute anything viable to Flamengo’s attacks.

One of the ways to break down a 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 formation is by switching play A pass from one side to the other. quickly, or to get players like De Arrascaeta in possession between the lines. Flamengo did neither.

All of this led to a slow tempo half – even for Brazilian standards – as every player on the ball took an extra touch or two, spinning away from their direct opponents…before playing the ball sideways. There was little interplay in the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. and not a lot of excitement in general. Between the sixth and the 31st minute, there were no shots on goal and the ball was in the middle third If you divide the pitch in three horizontal zones, the middle third is the most central area. of the pitch most of the time.

The game comes to life just before half-time

Cruzeiro set the game on fire by scoring with their first shot of the match. A piece of bad defending by Flamengo’s last line was at the center of this. In the span of seconds, both the left winger and the striker came deep to ask for the ball. As both Duarte and Pará followed their man while Caio took a step back, a huge hole opened up in the left halfspace. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace.

Fred, the old soldier, took notice and slid through Rocha, who calmly converted the one-versus-one opportunity and put Cruzeiro up in the 40th minute.

One minute later, the game was tied. Captain Ribeiro was supplied with a pass between the lines and he turned and sought out Flamengo’s striker, Bruno Henrique, with an early cross. Flamengo’s goalkeeper came off his line, missed the ball, and gave Henrique the chance to finish, which he did. Two goals in two minutes after nearly forty minutes of chess; another great example of how quickly a game of football can be turned on its head.  

Flamengo come alive

As neither manager made changes to formations nor personnel, the second half looked like the first half. As Cruzeiro’s number ten and nine were constantly outnumbered four to two in the middle of the pitch, Flamengo’s buildup was un-hindered the entire match. Arāo was especially responsible for dictating the play from the right halfspace, often joining the attack with a marauding dribble from deep.

This was exactly the case for Flamengo’s second goal of the match. Pará’s offensive position opened up space for Arão. He played a give-and-go with Gabigol, went all the way to the back line and put in a low cross which Bruno Henrique scored, giving Flamengo the lead, again, with his second goal of the match.

Situation just before the second goal; Arão is covered by Cuéllar and the tucked-in left back Renê.

It had been coming for some time, as Flamengo opened the second half in a better rhythm and with more possessions between the lines than they had in the first half. Between the 55th minute and the end of the match, they produced thirteen shots, allowing zero for Cruzeiro in the process.

With Flamengo leading, the pattern of the match did not change. Cruzeiro still defended deep, as though they had not conceded and did not have to chase a goal. Manager Mano Menezes made three substitutions, but none of them altered the style of play or formation by his team. The way Cruzeiro’s counterattacks were smothered so effectively in their own half, was at the base of Flamengo’s second half dominance and a very deserved win altogether. The fact that Cruzeiro’s central defender Cerqueira picked up a second yellow for a foul on Bruno Henrique was illustrative of their overall helplessness.

In the final minute of regular play, Flamengo scored a third goal. Bruno Henrique went in behind Cruzeiro’s defense and was found beautifully by Gabigol. He missed the golden opportunity for his hattrick, but Gabigol was there himself to put in the rebound, meaning Flamengo won the match 3-1.

Gabigol and Bruno Henrique scoring fits into a larger goal for Flamengo – the new signings have to hit the back of the net if their team wants to turn into genuine title contenders. If the first domestic league match of the season is anything to go by, they might be in good shape.

Old soldiers never die

Just after Flamengo’s third goal and with stoppage time starting, a true monument to Brazilian football came on the field for his last match: Juan. Looking at his resume speaks volumes; over 500 appearances in professional football, former central defender of Bayer Leverkusen, AS Roma and the Brazilian national team. After Flamengo won the state championship, Juan announced his retirement at the age of forty. This was his farewell game, even though it lasted only four minutes – it was a nice gift for the fans in Maracanã.

Twenty minutes earlier, the old fox Diego Ribas da Cunha – former Werder Bremen player – had come into the game to show off some playmaking skills for twenty minutes. Players like Fred, Diego and Juan are one of the more charming aspects of Brazilian football; long after making their livings in Europe, they keep playing in their home country, trying to teach the new boys how it is done and show some of their remaining qualities while they are at it.


After finishing runners-up last season, Flamengo is hunting for a title this season. To be serious contenders, their attacking play has to improve, though, as it was predictable in the first half. It is nice that Bruno Henrique scored two, but his overall record does not indicate that he can be so productive for a full season. Let us keep an eye on Flamengo for a couple of weeks before we make any serious statements about their title chances.

Cruzeiro only produced two shots in the entire match. A season is not won nor lost on the first day, but having only two shots in a game is a bad start. Additionally, their defensive stance did not work hand-in-hand with limiting the opponent’s attacking opportunities. The center-backs, in particular, looked out of their depth and the counterattacking has to improve significantly for Cruzeiro to play a part in this season’s Serie A.

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Erik Elias (27) is co-founder and chief editor of Between The Posts. Dutch, so admires Johan Cruijff and his football principles, but enjoys writing about other styles as well. Former youth coach. Videoscout at digital scouting consultancy 11tegen11. 'Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.' [ View all posts ]


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